As President, Bill Clinton infuriated many in the gay community by signing into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which required gay members of the military to remain in the closet about their sexual orientation or be ejected from service.
Arguably, Clinton didn't exactly have a lot of room to maneuver. DOMA passed by an overwhelming, veto-proof majority. While it was introduced by Republicans in 1996 (by Bob Barr, who would eventually run for president as a Libertarian Party candidate in 2008 and apologize for sponsoring the legislation), it got 118 Democratic votes in the House and 32 Democratic votes in the Senate.
It was a different time back then, and opinions and political positions on gay and lesbian issues have changed a lot since. It's hard (but not impossible) to find a Democrat who isn't on board same-sex marriage recognition these days and looking to expand civil rights laws to protect gays against workplace and public accommodations discrimination.
To the extent that gay issues come up in the 2016 presidential election—and it's not even clear that they will—the Democratic Party can expect its candidate to pretty much be able to run the field on the issue on the basis of where they stand now. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are strong supporters of gay issues.
At least, they are now. Hillary Clinton, though, has the same background as President Barack Obama—despite being gay-friendly, she nevertheless once supported that marriage should be defined to mean heterosexual couples and that states should decide for themselves whether and how to recognize same-sex couples.
Clinton's insistence that she is not a politician who holds positions that are shrewdly calculated on political expedience rather than ideology or philosophy has put her in a place where she has to justify the passage and her previous support for DOMA. And, of course, Clinton has done so in a way that is shrewdly calculated, but is also remarkably obvious to people who remember the 1990s. She is insisting, in defiance of all evidence, that the passage of DOMA was to protect gay people from something even worse. In a recent interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Clinton insisted that DOMA was an effort to protect gay people from a possible federal constitutional amendment that would have banned recognition of same-sex marriage permanently and would have been immune to Supreme Court intervention. She tells Maddow:
"On Defense of Marriage, I think what my husband believed – and there was certainly evidence to support it – is that there was enough political momentum to amend the Constitution of the United States of America, and that there had to be some way to stop that. And there wasn't any rational argument – because I was in on some of those discussions, on both 'don't ask, don't tell' and on DOMA, where both the president, his advisers and occasionally I would – you know, chime in and talk about, 'you can't be serious. You can't be serious.' But they were. And so, in a lot of ways, DOMA was a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further."
But it's just not true, and over the weekend, several prominent gay activists who were around at the time have been tweeting about what nonsense this attempt to revise history is. To show how cynical this effort is, this position by the Clintons that DOMA was about protecting gay people from something even worse goes all the way back to 2013, all of two years ago, which was the same year that the Supreme Court struck down the part of DOMA that prohibited the federal government from recognizing state-approved same-sex marriages. Looks like the Clintons jumped on the last train to be on the "right side of history."
But back when DOMA actually happened, President Clinton didn't just sign the law; his campaign actually ran radio ads targeting religious conservatives that touted it. And there was no evidence that a constitutional amendment was coming. It's not even a logical argument. If the Republicans were the ones pushing DOMA, this would seem to indicate that there actually was no amendment potentially in the works. Indeed, former Human Rights Campaign President Elizabeth Birch wrote that there was no interest in an amendment when Clinton was president. It was raised during George W. Bush's term in a politically calculated effort to get out religious right votes.
What's actually happening here is Clinton (and remarkably some other people are supporting her historical revisionism) is now looking at the state-to-state gay marriage recognition battles that followed DOMA and attempting to argue that a constitutional amendment could have actually happened without DOMA around to soothe anti-gay rage. They're hoping people don't look at the actual timeline of events. But that still doesn't make any sense, because the Federal Marriage Amendment was proposed when gay marriage supporters were losing state after state, and yet it still didn't go anywhere. Most people were content with the federalist position of state-level control (which would have happened regardless of DOMA), and that's exactly the position the Clintons and Obama had taken until recent years.
In fact, just last year Hillary Clinton was given the opportunity by Terry Gross on NPR to say her own "evolution" to support gay marriage was really just her saying what she had believed all along. She declined. She insisted that her evolution was recent and that her positions aren't being held out of political expediency.
If that's true, that means obviously she played an advisory role in a bad piece of legislation being passed that harmed her constituency. That would be admitting a mistake, and we can't have our political betters admitting to bad decisions, especially the Clintons. So instead, the two of them are trying to rewrite history as the protectors that they were not.
And it's such a strange, unnecessary move that speaks to Clinton's unwillingness to even countenance the obvious: that she is a politician whose success is as attributable to her ability to navigate what is necessary for her to remain in a powerful position as it is any policy pursuits. Clinton is probably not going to lose many votes to Bernie Sanders on the basis of Sanders voting against DOMA back then. Or at least, she wasn't, until she tried to act as though the Clintons were doing gay people a favor by helping pass it and Sanders took note.